I love walking down memory lane and writing about classic television series from the 1960s to the 1980s. Come along with me and explore!
From Space Aliens to the Supernatural: Science Fiction on TV in the '80s
Science-fiction television series are plentiful, and it's easy to see why Hollywood loves this genre. Space aliens, time travel, robots, futuristic gadgets, and ordinary folks being empowered with extraordinary abilities have driven the plotlines of many shows. Some made it to hit status while others missed—but not for lack of trying.
In this article, we take a look back at 10 science-fiction series that aired on American television during the 1980s. We'll include photos, vintage TV Guide ads, basic plotline overviews, trivia, and more to help us reminisce. It'll be a fun walk down memory lane for some and a journey of new discoveries for others!
'80s Sci-Fi TV Series That No One Remembers
- Amazing Stories
- The Highwayman
- Misfits of Science
- The Phoenix
- The Powers of Matthew Star
- Something Is Out There
1. Amazing Stories
Amazing Stories was a 45-episode anthology series that aired on NBC from September 1985 to February 1987 (two seasons). It was a nice blending of genres like science fiction, fantasy, drama, and even horror. It was created by legendary director Steven Spielberg, and it was his first visit back to television since his very successful directing venture for the now-classic 1971 ABC Movie of the Week, Duel, starring Dennis Weaver.
The series was a way for Spielberg to make use of the many small nuggets of ideas he had that were simply too thin and not able to sustain a full-length feature film. The cost per episode ran between $800,0000 to $1,000,000 to produce, and the series boasted several episodes directed by celebrities like Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Danny DeVito, and Robert Zemeckis.
The show didn't fare well in the ratings, ending its first season in 35th place, but it was going up against a well-established ratings winner on CBS: Murder, She Wrote. Critics weren't very impressed with the series, either, saying that the only thing wrong with the show was its title, since none of the episodes were really all that amazing; instead, they were filled with "clichés, sentimentality, and ordinary hokum."
Even though NBC realized that the show had tremendous kid appeal, they wanted to move away from the silly factor and bring in more human comedy. The network shifted Amazing Stories around on its schedule and finally canceled it in May of 1987.
Automan was a science-fiction and comedy series that aired on ABC from December 15, 1983 to April 2, 1984. Thirteen episodes were filmed, but only 12 aired during its initial run on ABC.
Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) always wanted to be a street cop, but his superiors, Lieutenant Jack Curtis (Robert Lansing) and Captain of Detectives E.G. Boyd (Gerald S. O'Loughlin), felt he was better suited to use his skills as a computer programmer.
Walter created computer games in his spare time, and when a computer glitch caused one of his creations, Automan, to come off the computer screen and appear in real life via hologram technology, Walter's career as a crime-fighter began.
Of course, just about every superhero or super crime-fighter has his weakness, and Automan was no different. Most of his crime-fighting had to be done at night since Automan required a lot of energy to materialize, and that energy was not readily available in the daytime.
If you missed it and want to check it out, the series has been released onto DVD.
3. The Highwayman
This series aired on NBC from March 4, 1988 to May 6, 1988 and starred Sam Jones (remember him as the 1980s Flash Gordon?) as a highwayman—a leather-clad, futuristic federal marshal who was empowered to right the wrongs that ordinary police officers couldn't.
The Highwayman was partnered with Jetto (Jacko, a big Australian dude who, for a while, advertised batteries on American TV, setting one on his shoulder and daring you to knock it off). The pair roamed the the countryside in their big, high-tech 18-wheeler that was heavily armed and shaped like a hot dog. I kid you not.
William Conrad, the actor best known for his work as the '70s television detective Cannon, did the opening narration (see the video above).
Manimal aired on NBC from September 30, 1983 to December 31, 1983 and starred handsome Simon MacCorkindale as Professor Jonathan Chase. The professor inherited (from his late father) the ability to transform himself into various animals.
To the unsuspecting population, he was a cultured college professor who taught animal behavioral sciences at a New York university. To the police, he was a valued consultant in the use of animals in police work. His transformations were at will, and he had total control over what he transformed into.
Only two other humans knew of his secret: Tye Earle (Michael D. Roberts), his friend with whom he served in Vietnam; and Brooke McKenzie, a police detective who discovered his ability by accident.
The series was ranked by TV Guide as one of worst TV shows of all time, getting the #15 slot out of 50 shows. John Javna, author of The Best of Science Fiction TV, included the show on his "Worst Science Fiction Shows of All Time" listing.
Sadly, handsome Simon MacCorkindale died October 14, 2010 from cancer. He was only 58 years old.
5. Misfits of Science
This fun-filled adventure fantasy series aired on NBC from October 4, 1985 to February 21, 1986 and followed the exploits of teens who possessed bizarre physical abilities. They were being studied by the Los Angeles Humanidyne Institute headed by Dr. Billy Hayes (Dean Paul Martin) and his co-worker Elvin "El" Lincoln (Kevin Peter Hall), a 7-foot-4-inch man who had the ability to shrink down to 6 inches tall.
Among the teens, Johnny B. (Mark Thomas Miller) was a rock musician who once zapped himself with 20,000 volts while onstage. Instead of dying, he became capable of shooting electricity from his fingers. Gloria (Courteney Cox) was a reformed delinquent who had telekinetic powers and could levitate objects. Of course, with abilities like these, it seems only natural that they would become crime-fighting superheroes of sorts, right?
The series also co-starred Max Wright, Jennifer Holmes, Diane Civita, and (briefly) Mickey Jones. Arnold "Beef"/"Ice Man" Beifneiter, the character portrayed by Jones in the pilot episode, had the ability to freeze anything he touched. Marvel Comics objected to this character because they had a member of the X-Men team with the same superpower, which is why Jones only appeared in the pilot.
Handsome Dean Paul Martin (son of legendary actor and crooner Dean Martin) died in a military plane crash on March 21, 1987 at age 35. Gentle giant Kevin Peter Hall died on April 10, 1991 at age 35 of AIDS-related pneumonia. He had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion.
This series aired on CBS from December 28, 1986 to May 30, 1987. It's what you get when you blend together the ideas of time travel, a Western, and a detective drama. The plot of Outlaws started out in 1899 when Sheriff John Grail (Rod Taylor) of Texas was chasing a gang of bank robbers led by Harland Pike (William Lucking)—a gang that he had once been a member of before he decided to go straight and become a lawman.
After being caught in a strange electrical storm in a Native American burial ground, Grail and the Pike gang found themselves going through time and ending up in modern-day Texas. Not knowing what else to do and trying hard to fit into their new surroundings, they bought a ranch. They named it the Double Eagle Ranch, and then they opened a detective agency called The Double Eagle Detective Agency.
These men then brought old-fashioned justice to this new era. They wore new outfits that were replicas of their old clothes, they used their own old weapons, and they always got their man.
Lt. Maggie Randall (Christina Belford) befriended the gang and tried her best to keep them out of trouble. She also had a little bit of a soft spot for Grail. The series also starred Charles Napier as Wolfson "Wolf" Lucus, Patrick Houser as Billy Pike, and Richard Roundtree as Isaiah "Ice" McAdams.
7. The Phoenix
This series was very short-lived and aired on ABC from March 19, 1982 to April 16, 1982. Judson Scott was Bennu of the Golden Light, an advanced being who came to Earth as a "gift." He had been entombed in a sarcophagus in the Andes mountains and had been found and released by modern-day scientists.
He was unsure what his mission was; that information was destroyed when the scientists removed him from his slumber. He knew that he came from a dying civilization and showed that he had advanced powers (levitation, telepathy, telekinesis), which he was able to access via a necklace he wore that was powered by the sun.
Bennu began his search for his partner, Mira, who had also come to Earth and who was entombed somewhere in a burial ground in North America. Bennu's goal was to find her, discover their joint mission, and stay one step ahead of Justin Preminger (Richard Lynch), who was hired to capture him by the government.
ABC did very little to promote the series, but it received many fan letters, and the TV movie did well in the ratings despite ABC's lack of effort. Sadly, the series was placed on ABC's schedule, and it went up against the much-loved and well-established CBS series Dallas.
8. The Powers of Matthew Star
Classified by TV Guide as one of the worst TV shows of all time (#22 on the list, so not as bad as Manimal), this science-fiction series ran on NBC from September 17, 1982 to September 11, 1983.
Matthew Star (Peter Barton) may have looked like your typical teenage high school student, but he was really the crown prince of the planet Quandris. His father, the king, had been overthrown by tyrants, but he was able to help Matthew escape to Earth so that his powers of telepathy and telekinesis could develop. When the time was right, Matthew was to return home and take back the throne.
Meanwhile, he and his guardian, Walt Shephard (Louis Gossett, Jr.), spent their time working through typical teenage issues—when they weren't fighting or hiding from the occasional agent from Quandris who was determined to prevent Matthew from ever returning home.
This series was supposed to have premiered in 1981, but it was delayed because of an on-set accident where Peter Barton was badly burned by some pyrotechnics. Barton spent several months in the hospital recovering.
9. Something Is Out There
Something Is Out There began its life as a highly successful (ratings-wise) miniseries on NBC. Jack Breslin (Joe Cortese) starred as a Los Angeles cop who had to figure out who or what was killing humans and removing their organs. He met lovely space alien Tara (Maryam d'Abo), who was a medical officer on the spaceship where the killer, a horrible space monster, was kept before it managed to escape to Earth. It was up to the duo to stop it and save the Earth, which they did.
The series, airing from October 21, 1988 to December 9, 1988, focused on the relationship between Jack and Tara (she posed as his cousin), and it strayed from its science-fiction theme. It took on a more supernatural aspect, and many of the cases dealt with things like psychics and telepathy.
The show first went up against the very popular CBS series Dallas and fared horribly in the ratings. It was then scheduled against Beauty and the Beast and did even worse in the ratings, if that was possible. These consistently low ratings prompted one critic to surmise that the violent and gory death scenes were turning off the viewing audience. It's amazing how these kinds of television shows are the norm and very popular these days!
Starman was a science-fiction adventure show that aired on ABC from September 19, 1986 to September 4, 1987 with a total of 22 episodes. This series was a continuation of the 1984 feature film of the same name.
Taking place 14 years after the events of the movie, the series saw Starman returning to Earth to help raise the son he fathered years earlier. Since he had no corporeal body of his own, he assumed the body of Paul Forrester (Robert Hayes), a photojournalist who died in a plane crash in the wilderness.
He found his son Scott (D.B. Barnes) in an orphanage, and the two then set out to find Scott's mother, Jenny, who had disappeared years earlier. At first, Scott didn't believe Paul's story about being of alien origin, but his mind began to change when he witnessed Paul's unusual abilities, like levitation and opening locked doors without needing a key. What truly convinced Scott was when his own supernatural abilities began to appear.
Their search for Jenny took them on many adventures, and it was through those encounters that Paul (Starman) learned about life as a human. As they travelled, they interacted with different people and became embroiled in all kinds of drama. However, they could never stay in one place for too long because a government agent, George Fox (Michael Cavanaugh), was trying to capture Paul and take him into custody so he could be tested and studied and have all of his secrets discovered.
This series actually had a happy ending: Paul and Scott found Jenny (Erin Gray), and this was meant to pave the way for a second season, but it never materialized.
More TV Nostalgia From the '70s and '80s
- Short-Lived and Easily Forgotten TV Shows From the '70s
Here are 45 short-lived and easily forgotten television series from the 1970s. Plot lines, actors, trivia, photos, videos, and more. Take a walk down memory lane and see how many of these shows you remember!
- 28 Short-Lived and Easily Forgotten 1980s TV Series
Check out these 28 short-lived and easily forgotten television series from the 1980s. Veteran actors and newcomers alike have their share of misfires. We'll see Tim Conway, Jerry Reed, David Soul, Shaun Cassidy, and more!
© 2015 Glory Miller
Ten Easily Forgotten 1980s Science Fiction TV Series Guestbook
Rachelle Williams from Tempe, AZ on October 11, 2018:
Corny! Corny! Corny! But, I LOVED 70s and 80s Sci Fi.. LOL!
RED paksenarrion from Friendship, Wisconsin on March 30, 2018:
I like most of these yah some were corny but it was a adventure unusually with a teen or preteen in there who could do cool stuff. what was there not to like.